Woman's robe (munisak). Central Asia, 1850-75. Silk velvet. (Robb Harrell/Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)
Art critic

There’s a famous line in Rob Reiner’s coming-of-age movie “Stand by Me.” It’s delivered with a slight lisp by a chubby little boy called Verne: “If I could only eat one food for the rest of my life, that’s easy. Pez. Cherry flavor Pez. No question about it.”

Verne, in the movie, looks like a bit of a gourmand. He’s familiar with many different kinds of food.

I, too, as an art critic, have seen a lot of different kinds of art. But, I swear: If I could see only one kind of art for the rest of my life, it’s easy. Textiles. Uzbekistani textiles. No question about it.

The two kinds of Uzbekistani — or really, Central Asian — textiles I like most are suzanis and ikat. Suzanis are embroidered with silk or cotton with bright-colored motifs that include carnations, pomegranates, irises, tulips and discs denoting the sun or moon.

They’re stunning — somehow relaxed, improvised, aerated — yet also dreamily, transcendently elegant. They’re everything Henri Matisse was trying to achieve, just in colored thread.

There are two — yes, two — ikat shows you can see, both in the nation’s capital. “To Dye For: Ikats From Central Asia” is at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on the Mall (through July 29). “Binding the Clouds: The Art of Central Asian Ikat” is at the Textile Museum at George Washington University (through July 9). Both are showing textiles originally collected by Guido Goldman, a specialist in German history and an investor who amassed what many consider the world’s finest ikat collection.


Textiles from Central Asia, Uzbekistan, Bukhara, 1800-1850; on view at The Textile Museum. (George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum/George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum)

Ikat textiles alloy brilliant, saturated color with mesmerizing patterns. (George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum/George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum)

What is ikat?

Ikat textiles alloy brilliant, saturated color with mesmerizing patterns. You can tell them by the blur or “bleed” around the edges of their gorgeous designs. It’s as though Gerhard Richter had decided to paint a Persian carpet with one of his giant squeegees, or as though your TV went briefly haywire in the middle of a documentary about fruit orchards.

Ikat’s distinctive look is the product of a sophisticated technique that involves designers, binders, weavers and, above all, dyers. The technique developed in the late 18th century in the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara, in what today is Uzbekistan.

Bukhara occupies a fertile oasis surrounded by orchards and fields — natural features that surely inspired the abstracted motifs in ikat designs. It spread north and east to Samarkand, Tashkent and the Fergana Valley.

To appreciate ikat, you don’t need to understand how they’re made. But, as with any art form, having an idea enhances the experience. The key thing — the thing that makes ikat unusual — is that when the cloth is stretched on the warp, it already holds a pattern, even before any weft is applied. How?

The process starts with bundles of silk yarn. Before being dropped in a dye bath, these bundles are bound in the places the dyers want to protect, so that only the unbound parts absorb the dye. After dying, the bindings are removed and new ones placed elsewhere on the same bundle, which is then submerged in the next dye bath — a different color. This process is repeated according to a preordained design worked out earlier when the yarn was stretched on a frame.

The whole process can take weeks or months. Conceptually — and logistically, too — it’s complex. What’s more, the silk is slippery and difficult to handle. Many things can go wrong.

In the 19th century, when the overwhelming majority of the ikats in both these shows were made, different ethnic groups specialized in different parts of the process. Tajiks worked on red and yellow dyes, and Jews on indigo. Uzbeks focused on weaving.

Part of why ikat textiles were for so long little known in the West is that few of them made it out of Central Asia while these countries were under Soviet occupation. That changed when the old Soviet Union broke up.


Evening ensemble, featuring polychrome silk embroidery and silk taffeta; pants of silk shatung. Designed by Oscar de la Renta. (Collection of Annette de la Renta/Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)

Ikat-patterned gown. Silk and wool jacquard. Oscar de la Renta Collection, fall 2013. (Oscar de la Renta Collection/Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)

The ikats at the Sackler include coats, as well as hangings. The show also includes examples of the influence of ikat on Oscar de la Renta, the fashion designer who may have done more than anyone to cultivate an appreciation for ikat in this country.

The Textile Museum show focuses more on hangings and is beautifully installed. Part of the charm of ikats is the way different sections of cloth were sewn together, so that motifs almost but don’t quite align, created a thrilling optical buzz and shiver.

In Central Asia, ikat textiles carry a lot of prestige — not only, you feel, because the technique is labor-intensive and expensive, but because the results are so insanely beautiful. In Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia, ikat coats, called chapan or khalat, were — and continue to be — worn by dandies and powerful men, as well as by women, in large part to signify wealth and rank.

The ikat technique of binding segments of bundles of yarn and resist dyeing is known in Central Asia as “abrbandi,” a Persian term that can be translated as “binding the clouds.” A beautiful notion. No wonder the Textile Museum used it in the title of their show.

Dyeing and weaving are among the greatest of human achievements. We wear clothes made from woven fabrics every day, so we take it for granted. But when you see what is involved in a technique like ikat — the number of complex steps it takes to get from the cocoons of silk worms fed on mulberries to vats of high quality, colorfast dye obtained from rare and unlikely-sounding sources, and from there to sturdy fabrics that ripple and shimmer, protecting and adorning our bodies or walls — it is hard not to marvel.

To Dye For: Ikats From Central Asia At the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, through July 29. Binding the Clouds: The Art of Central Asian Ikat At the Textile Museum at George Washington University, through July 9.